The Thals of Sassmacken

From a 1981 interview between Rabbi Lennard Thal and my great-grandfather’s sister, Paula Thal Aminoff, I have this quote: “Sassmacken. There was full of Jews. And there were a bunch of Thals there – not related, another family, very fine people, but not related to us. Ours was a big family and they were a big family.”

If you’ve done much research into families of Sassmacken, it would not be be surprising for you to have connected to one or more Thals. There were, in fact, two very large Thal families with roots there, and yet another that had ties to Talsen and other Courland towns. And Rabbi Lennard Thal? He connects with yet another Thal family from Lithuania. To make things even more confusing, the two Sassmacken Thal families are both headed by men named Moshe!

Let’s start with an overview of these families, and then, in honor of Father’s Day, I’ll talk a bit about Y-DNA.

Moses and Sara Thal

Moses Thal, my great-great-great-grandfather, was born between 1798 and 1803, the son of Yakov, according to his death record. According to his granddaughter, Paula, he and Sara were quite young when they were married, and they lived and raised their family in Sassmacken. Like many residents of the town, Moses was registered in Tukums and is listed in those revision lists. Below he is listed in an 1838 record with his wife, Sara and oldest son, Levin.

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Moses and Sara had ten children, and remained in Sassmacken until they died, she in 1888 and he in 1892. Details of their descendants can be found here. Most of at least four branches emigrated to the United States before the Second World War, but many of the rest remained in Latvia. Those familiar with the remembrances of Sol Katzen will recognize the widows, Dora and Minna Thal, from this family. They were the wives of Shimon and Ephraim Thal, sons of Moses and Sara. Large numbers of those who remained were killed in the Holocaust. At this time, I know of descendants living in Israel, Australia and a few remaining in Latvia. There is a 19th-century Latvian record indicating that one descendant lived in Africa, but no further records have been found.

Moses and Gittel Thal

The other Moses Thal was born about 1792, the son of Yankel and Jache. Like my Moses Thal, he was also registered in Tukums. Below he is listed in the revision lists of 1834 with his sons, Nachman, Jankel, Itzig and Schaye, as well as his wife, Gittel, his mother, Jache, and his daughters, Zipore Taube and Feige-Maye. Nachman’s wife, Riwe, and daughter, Ester, are also listed.

Details of the descendants of Moses and Gittel can be found here. A large branch of the family ended up in South Africa before 1900, and I visited descendants there many years ago. Many also emigrated to the United States, and several remained in Latvia. I have recently heard from a descendant of this family in Moscow as well. Among the descendants in this family was the famous chessmaster, Mikhail Tal, son of Nechemia and Ida Thal, both descendants of Moses and Gittel. In Sol Katzen’s memoirs, the children of Itzik Thal, son of Moses and Gittel, figure prominently. He remembers three sons in particular: Cheme, Jacob and Shaya.

Two More Families

Another Thal family, that of Auzer and Henne Thal, has roots in Tukums. To my knowledge, there are no records of these descendants in Sassmacken, but there are connections to Talsen, Mitau, and Libau. Auzer was born ca. 1784 and died in 1864. At this time, I have records of two sons, Lazar and Abraham, both of whom had many descendants. One branch of this family emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s and spread from there to the United States, South Africa, and Australia. Many others ended up in the United States. Details of Auzer’s descendants can be found here.

Finally, the ancestors of Rabbi Lennard Thal, Ariel and Chava Thal of Skophishok, Lithuania, are worth mentioning. Their descendants don’t appear in Latvian records, to my knowledge, and I have not kept good records of them. But many Jewish families moved from Lithuania into Latvia, so it’s worth noting that this significant family was not very far away.

So Is There a Connection?

Written records for these families only go back to the early 1800s. In fact, the Jewish population of this area didn’t take surnames that much earlier, probably in the 18th-century. How did two or more Jewish families end up in the same place at the same time with the same names?

One answer might be that they originated in different places. Sassmacken was a bit of a hub for Jewish merchants at one time during the 19th-century, and these families may have taken the name “Thal” before they both arrived in the town. There is a very early revision list for a Moses Jankel Thal in Kandau in 1816. I haven’t confirmed 100% which one this is, but this would indicate that both Moses Thals may not have been born in Sassmacken.

The question of a connection leads me to my “Father’s Day” topic of Y-DNA. Because of endogamy – the massive amount of intermarriage evident in these and most Jewish families – a standard autosomal DNA test is of little use confirming or disproving a connection. Without going into too much detail, a Y-DNA test provides information about your paternal line, and is accurate much further back than a standard DNA test.

At this time, the only place to do this sort of testing is through Family Tree DNA. Men and women can both have the test done, but the paternal line will be the only one tracked, so those born with the name “Thal” would be of interest here. I have had Y-DNA tests done for both my father and myself. Recently, I had a test completed for a descendant of the Auzer Thal family and there was no connection. I have not yet located a descendant of the other Moses Thal family to do a test.

My suspicion is that my great-great-aunt Paula was right all along. There is probably no common ancestor for these families. But I suspect the only way to prove it one way or another is through Y-DNA tests. If you are interested, check out Family Tree DNA and contact me.

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